Bradley Bouzane, Postmedia News: Friday, November 5, 2010 6:58 PM
A Nova Scotia man was found guilty Friday of inciting racial hatred for burning a cross outside the home of an interracial couple in rural Hants County, a decision the Canadian Jewish Congress calls "precedent-setting."
Justin Rehberg, 19, pleaded guilty last month to a charge of criminal harassment stemming from the Feb. 21 incident in which Michelle Lyon and Shayne Howe discovered the burning cross, with a noose attached, on the lawn of their home.
Provincial court Judge Claudine MacDonald said Friday that Rehberg would be sentenced next month. It was the first time in Canada that cross burning has been deemed a hate crime in court.
Despite the conviction, the bigger problem lies with less obvious displays of hate and bias, one legal expert said.
David Tanovich, a law professor at the University of Windsor in Ontario who specializes in systemic racism and criminal justice, says the conviction was positive, but more can be done to shed light on other, lower-profile cases.
He said the charges against Rehberg and his 20-year-old brother, Nathan, are concerning given their ages.
"That's a sad reality of racism and other forms of prejudice, is that they persist," he said.
"The real danger isn't so much in the overt acts like this, but in the more subtle instances where people don't even realize they're acting in a discriminatory fashion and it has significant consequences to those that experience it."
Two other charges — uttering threats and mischief — were dropped by the Crown during Rehberg's court appearance last month.
Tanovich said that in Canada, there is a "sentencing regime" that allows the Crown or the judge to push bias or prejudice as an aggravating factor for some crimes — such as assault — that might have been motivated by hate and typically based on race or sexual orientation.
Although it is an option that could see stronger sentences, Tanovich said it is rarely utilized in the Canadian justice system.
"It reflects that a lot more people aren't necessarily overtly biased, but they do manifest unconscious biases and the real danger is our inability to recognize that and deal with it on a systemic level," he said.
On Friday, the Canadian Jewish Congress said it was pleased with the verdict and hopes the conviction can move Canada in the right direction for eliminating hate-motivated crime.
"We commend Judge Claudine MacDonald for sending a clear message that Canadians will not stand for blatant acts of hatred and racism," Bernie Farber, the group's CEO, said in a statement. "This is a precedent-setting case, the first time in Canada that a cross burning has been recognized for what it is — a hate crime."
Rehberg's conviction comes a week before the trial of brother Nathan Rehberg, who faces charges of public incitement of hatred, mischief and uttering threats.
According to Statistics Canada, in 2007 and 2008, there were more than 1,800 hate crimes reported to police in Canada. The figures were the most recent available from the federal agency.
Of those, the majority — roughly 1,050 reports — were centred around race or ethnicity, while religion accounted for more than 400 reports.